Leading UK lawyers, have defied the rules of the bar by signing a declaration stating they will not prosecute peaceful climate protesters or act for companies involved in fossil fuel projects.
Over 120 barristers signed a declaration vowing to ‘withhold services in respect of supporting new fossil fuel projects and action against climate protesters exercising their right of peaceful protest’.
A formal declaration on the move is due on Wednesday (March 29) outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London’s Strand.
The document states the climate crisis represents ‘a serious risk to the rule of law’ and calls on legal professionals ‘to act urgently to do whatever they can to address the causes and consequences of the climate and ecological crises and to advance a just transition’.
Writing in the Guardian newspaper’s comment section, Jolyon Maugham KC, the head of the Good Law Project and a key signatory of the declaration, outlined the thinking behind the move.
‘Like big tobacco, the fossil fuel industry has known for decades what its activities mean. They mean the loss of human life and property – which the civil law should prevent but does not.
‘The scientific evidence is that global heating, the natural and inevitable consequence of its actions, will cause the deaths of huge numbers of people. The criminal law should punish this but it does not. Nor does the law recognise a crime of ecocide to deter the destruction of the planet. The law works for the fossil fuel industry – but it does not work for us.’
Maugham called on examples from the past to point the way forward for his legal colleagues.
‘Sometimes the law is wrong. What it stands for is the opposite of justice’ he stated.
‘Today’s history books speak with horror about what the law of yesterday did, of how it permitted racism, rape and murder. And tomorrow’s history books will say the same about the law as it stands today, of how it enabled the destruction of our planet and the displacement of billions of people.’
Lawyers and Academics Unite
Eighteen lawyers, have signed the declaration. They will now self-refer to the Bar Standards Board for breaking the profession’s so-called ‘cab rank’ rule, which specifies that a barrister must take a case they are qualified for, provided they are available to do so.
The signatories also include solicitors, academics and other legal professionals. They include Sir Geoffrey Bindman KC, chair of the British Institute of Human Rights, Farhana Yamin, one of the architects of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, Imran Khan KC, who represented the family of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence and Professor Leslie Thomas KC, Gresham Professor of Law.
Others are Aoife Fleming, legal co-ordinator for World’s Youth for Climate Justice, and Tim Hirschel-Burns, co-founder of US group Law Students for Climate Accountability.
But the protesters have been accused of undermining a key principle of the legal system – that everyone is entitled to fair and impartial representation.
Nick Vineall KC, the chair of the Bar Council of England and Wales, said: ‘The cab rank rule prevents discrimination and improves access to justice. It means that barristers sometimes have to represent people they disapprove of or disagree with.
‘But the flip side is that clients can have the barrister they choose. It is for judges or juries to decide who is right and who is wrong, not barristers. Should a barrister be allowed to refuse to defend a climate change activist because they happen to disagree with that activist’s style of protest? I don’t think so.’
Tim Crosland, the director of the environmental law pressure group Plan B, which together with the Good Law Project coordinated the declaration, said; ‘Behind every new oil and gas deal sits a lawyer getting rich.
‘Meanwhile, it’s the ordinary people of this country, taking a stand against this greed and destruction that the British legal system prosecutes and imprisons, jailing them just for talking about the climate crisis and fuel poverty. The rule of law has been turned on its head. Lawyers are responsible. It’s time to take a stand.’